The Preacher’s Proverbs | Ecclesiastes 7:1-10
A good reputation is better than precious perfume; likewise, the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sober reflection is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of merrymaking.
It is better for a person to receive a rebuke from those who are wise than to listen to the song of fools. For like the crackling of quick-burning thorns under a cooking pot, so is the laughter of the fool. This kind of folly also is useless. Surely oppression can turn a wise person into a fool; likewise, a bribe corrupts the heart.
The end of a matter is better than its beginning; likewise, patience is better than pride. Do not let yourself be quickly provoked, for anger resides in the lap of fools. Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these days?” for it is not wise to ask that (Ecclesiastes 7:1-10).
Solomon remains widely known for his proverbs. As the Preacher he could not resist providing a few in his exhortation.
Throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-6:12 the Preacher meditates upon the hevel of life under the sun: all is vain, futile – truly absurd. He compares most human endeavors toward meaning as “chasing after wind”: people pursue pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or other things looking for ultimate purpose and satisfaction and will be disappointed and frustrated by all of them. To rage against such truths is itself futile and striving after wind. God understands better than we do.
Likewise, throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-6:12 the Preacher has maintained rhetorical coherence, addressing a variety of topics, but very much so in terms of a discourse. One could perhaps argue the Preacher continues to meditate on the theme of wisdom by providing wise aphoristic insights in Ecclesiastes 7:1-10; yet Ecclesiastes 7:11-29 proves far more coherent and consistent with what we have seen before in a way quite unlike Ecclesiastes 7:1-10.
We thus do best to understand Ecclesiastes 7:1-10 as at least three “proverbial” meditations by the Preacher. The Preacher, associated with Solomon, is legendary for his compilation and composition of proverbs (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:9); we should not be surprised to find at least part of the Preacher’s message to feature them. Proverbs can be set forth in a contextual frame or “rapid fire” without any contextual demand; we might reason the Preacher waxes proverbial in light of his observations about man’s inability to make sense of his plight in Ecclesiastes 6:10-12, but with a series of proverbs we have no obligation to expect contextual flow.
The Preacher began these “proverbial” meditations with a reconsideration of “happiness” and “sadness.” The Preacher confesses the great importance of a good reputation, which he deems more valuable than perfume, which was expensive indeed (Ecclesiastes 7:1). This observation leads the Preacher to also consider the day of a person’s death better than the day of his or her birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1), a comparison which would not come naturally to many of us. His latter observation becomes his focus: the Preacher considers it better to go to a funeral than a feast, since death comes for everyone, and people do well to remember it (Ecclesiastes 7:2). Likewise, sorrow is better than laughter, since reflection on life is good for the heart (Ecclesiastes 7:3). Thus the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning while the heart of the fool is in the house of merrymaking (Ecclesiastes 7:4).
Few would deny the truth of the Preacher’s observation about the value of a good reputation, especially among those who have endured the terrible fortune of watching their reputation be unjustly besmirched. Despite what many may try to tell you, money cannot really buy a good reputation, and they prove hard to restore once lost. Yet our entire culture actively resists and rails against the Preacher’s observations about death. Death was an ever-present pervasive reality in the ancient world; thanks to our scientific understanding and technologies, we have found ways of trying to make death seem more remote. In the process, however, people do everything they can to avoid and resist even the thought of death and fling themselves into an Epicurean posture of trying to live their best lives and pretend death will not happen. We do not know what to do with those who are actively dying or grieving the loss of loved ones. To modern Western man it is patently absurd to suggest the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. Yet the Preacher was wise, and was not wrong. Our culture’s death avoidance posture betrays how many are fools in the house of merrymaking, and we as the people of God do better to reflect the wisdom of sitting in the house of mourning. One way they can do so is to take seriously and make good on the Preacher’s advice in Ecclesiastes 7:1-4.
The Preacher considers further comparisons between the wise and the foolish in Ecclesiastes 7:5-7. As the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning while the heart of the fool is in the house of merrymaking, so it is better to suffer the rebuke of a wise man than to listen to the song of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:4-5). The laughter of fools is ephemeral, like the crackling of thorns quickly burning under the cooking pot, and proves useless (Ecclesiastes 7:6). ‘osheq can make a wise man foolish, or drive the wise man crazy; some versions understand ‘osheq as “extortion,” but better evidence exists for a rendering of “oppression”; in a similar way, a bribe corrupts a person (Ecclesiastes 7:7).
The Preacher’s meditations on the wise and the foolish will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time considering the book of Proverbs. We confess their truth while generally presuming we are among the “wise.” Yet Ecclesiastes 7:7 is an important reminder for us: “the wise person” and “the foolish person” are not fixed and static; the very same person, at times, might think, feel, or act “wisely” or “foolishly,” and certain circumstances can lead a person who has generally been known as “wise” to become foolish. No one wants to think of him or herself as the fool or as thinking, feeling, and acting foolishly; this kind of self-deception is precisely what we would expect out of the foolish, while the wise humbly confess their propensity toward folly.
The Preacher is able to bring the previous two themes together somewhat in his third series of proverbial observations (Ecclesiastes 7:8-10). The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and thus patience is better than pride (Ecclesiastes 7:8). In counseling patience, the Preacher encourages those who hear him to not be easily provoked since anger dwells in the lap of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:9). And the Preacher counsels against asking why the days of old were better than present times, since it is not from wisdom that anyone would ask this (Ecclesiastes 7:10). Such hearkens back to some of the Preacher’s original observations about how there is nothing new under the sun and how the story of humanity is more cyclical than progressive (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:1-11).
We can understand and appreciate each of these three observations on their face. We may have energy and interest at the beginning of something, but at its end we can see its ultimate end, and in the same way indeed it is better to have patience and endure over time than to maintain pride in exuberance. We have learned how many parts of the brain shut down when a person is provoked to anger, and pain, folly, and suffering will follow unless the person gets ahold of themselves and allows better executive function to prevail.
Yet it is also not hard to see how Ecclesiastes 7:8-9 reach their climax in Ecclesiastes 7:10. Nostalgia is quite the drug! Humans tend to maintain a gauzy view of the past, easily remembering what they thought was good, and glossing over the less than pleasant parts of those days. Little such gauziness is reserved for the present moment and its acute pains and distress. But the “good old days” really were not; and even if one can reasonably argue conditions of the past were in many respects better for a given group of people than is true in the present, such will not be true for everyone. Whether we want to recognize it or not, the past is not better or worse than the present; it is just different.
We can think of few better situations which exemplify the Preacher’s concern and wisdom than Israel in the Wilderness. YHWH had delivered them from the house of slavery with a powerful hand; yet they did not remember the oppression or cruelty, but they did remember the food they ate since it was more varied than the food they had in the Wilderness, and their folly extended to the point of seriously suggesting returning to Egypt when the spies brought back their report of the challenges of conquering Canaan (cf. Numbers 14:1-4). Imagine that scene for a moment: what would the Egyptian border garrison think of all those Israelites returning to submit again to the bondage of slavery? What foolish delusion! And all because they waxed nostalgic about what they left behind in Egypt without appropriate consideration of all they had suffered in Egypt.
And so it goes to this day. We resist contemplation of death and want to pretend we will not have to endure it. We never want to think it possible we could be the fool, and thus we prove to be the fool. And we think it was better in the “good old days,” forgetting the suffering and oppression but remembering fondly what we think we have lost. Thus we do well to meditate upon the Preacher’s proverbs, pursue the wisdom he provided, and seek to glorify God in Christ through the Spirit in all things!
Ethan R. Longhenry
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